A moose, a gift to the South African nation by the Swedish ambassador, has got loose, stalking around a remote village in the Eastern Cape. The political uproar is as nothing to the domestic drama of its inhabitants whose lives crash together around a wilful fifteen-year-old girl, Thozama. In this fantastical tale, the legacy of the animal’s doomed bid for freedom ultimately inspires a deeply moving deliverance for the play’s protagonists.
Karoo Moose is one of six works that comprise the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Assembly’s Baxter Theatre Season. Written and directed by CEO and artistic director Lara Foot, Karoo Moose was first performed in South Africa in 2007, and transferred to the United Kingdom in 2009 at the Tricycle Theatre. Here, Foot returns to the theme of infant rape, also the subject of her earlier 2004 work Tshepang: The Third Testament (playing at Assembly Roxy). The two incidents of sexual violence are no less horrendous for the subtlety with which they are depicted. Despite its warm and hopeful conclusion, this is a hard watch and anyone booking to see this in the context of the Fringe– which they very definitely should – ought to plan carefully to allow time for some quiet contemplation before seguing back into Edinburgh’s manic bustle.
This is not to say that Foot’s work is downbeat. Chuma Sopotela’s defiant optimism as heroine Thozama is infectious. Combined with the wider ensemble’s exuberant energy, especially effective in Mdu Kewyama’s thrillingly choreographed movement sections, Karoo Moose is an uplifting testament to the power of live performance. Such uplift is further elevated by cast member Bongile Mantai’s musical direction of exceptionally beautiful soaring African song.
Although the moose itself – especially in its mythic incarnation – commands our attention, it would be a mistake to neglect the other half of the play’s title: fatherhood, or its absence. In the circumstances Foot depicts, the desertion of fathers is moral rather than existential. More’s the pity; the main characters only enjoy some semblance of peace after the physical removal of some of the worst offenders. In the profoundly patriarchal community depicted, the scope for harm is absolute, where unrestrained and unchallenged power rises to monstrously epic proportions. Yet in some ways it is Mfundo Tshazibane as Jonas, Thozama’s father, whose moral apathy is the most outrageous, his eventual attempt at redemption in defence of his daughter insufficient to retain any sort of meaningful status as a father.
As with Foot’s harrowing Mies Julie (playing at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms), the preference for the truth of individual characterisation over the bluntly symbolic makes teasing out a definitive political message impossible – and both works are immeasurably strengthened by this. Thanks to its lightness of touch, the work potentially exposes itself to misreadings or at least highly critical ones: the white policeman touchingly played by Mdu Kweyama could not credibly represent anyone other than himself, yet the generous role he is afforded could potentially be (in my view, unsustainably) read as a benevolent depiction of white political authority. Likewise, the role of men as key storytellers of women’s sexual violence could be – in that dreaded snowflake word – problematic. Yet the ambiguity here is of the very best kind, namely a thematic openness that rewards sustained reflection and is the hallmark of any serious grown-up work of art.
A key theme of the play is storytelling. Despite how explicit theatrical self-reflectiveness usual heralds tremendous tedium, here is a rare example of how to do meta better. That success lies in the unboundedness of the story itself: tragedy, magical realism, comedy, social commentary, and nostalgia all interweave with total conviction. The net result is that whilst life in all its forms pulsates across the stage, the rapid and playful blend of genres serves as a very moving expression of Foot’s astonishing humanitarian compassion.
Karoo Moose – No Fathers is on until 27 August 2017 at Assembly George Square. Click here for more details.